Earl's Well That Ends Well by Jane Ashford





One


            As Arthur Shelton, seventh Earl of Macklin, walked through his home on his way to bed, he could hear the sharp scratch of sleet on the window glass, driven by a bitter late-January wind. A draft fluttered the flame on the candlestick he carried. The new year was beginning with a long, hard freeze. He was glad his children and their families had gotten away well before this storm hit, even though their departure had left the house feeling empty. The sound of his grandchildren’s feet pounding down the corridors and their high, childish voices calling to one another had been such a pleasure.

            On impulse, he turned and went into the gallery. The long room stretched out before him, scarcely lit by his one candle. It was frigid, too, with no fires lit. He passed the portraits of his ancestors, their ranks a panoply of English history, and stopped near the far end, raising the candlestick to better illuminate the painting that hung there. It had been done nearly twenty years ago and showed his wife, Celia, in the early years of their marriage, a lovely young woman in a gown of sapphire silk and lace.

            He gazed into her serene blue eyes. The artist had caught the little half smile that so often graced her features. That smile had drawn him across a ballroom to wangle an introduction and a dance. When they’d talked, its promise had been fulfilled. Celia had possessed warmth and humor and an eager gusto for life. How she would have enjoyed the holiday visit just past! How unfair that she’d missed it, along with so much else.

            Arthur caught his own reflection in a dark windowpane. It was almost as if they stood side by side again. Except that Celia was still young, and he was nearly fifty. It was true that his dark hair had no gray. His tall figure remained muscular and upright. His square-jawed, broad-browed face showed few lines. But he was not the young man who had wooed and won her and brought her here to Macklin Abbey.

            More than ten years Celia had been gone now, struck down by a raging fever before she reached forty. It had been a hard death. She’d fought it with all her strength, and he’d sat beside her and tried to lend his own. There was nothing worse than seeing the one you loved suffering and being able to do nothing, Arthur thought. Even now, a decade later, that pain lingered.

            He gazed into Celia’s painted eyes. While his friends were sowing their wild oats in London society, he’d been getting to know her. He hadn’t envied them, hadn’t regretted even when they joked about his stuffiness. He’d had no doubts when he stood up beside Celia and made a vow for life. He’d expected to fulfill it, with all the joys and sorrows, complications and difficulties the years might bring, right down into old age. But fate had stepped in and changed the rules, and he’d been left alone. That, he had never planned.

            Arthur allowed himself a brief pang, thinking of all the duties and familial pleasures he’d experienced without Celia. He’d carried on. When he looked at his children, he thought he’d done well. But it had been a long time since he was Celia’s husband. Arthur met the eyes of his reflection once again. He thought of the four young men he’d helped this last year with the grief that oppressed them. He’d had some small part in establishing pockets of happiness scattered around the country, with their three wives and an upcoming wedding. They had each found a new life.

            Perhaps this was a lesson he should learn for himself as well? A shock went through him at the idea, and at the realization that it had not occurred to him before. Odd that it had taken near strangers to plant the notion of change. But now that it had appeared, the idea began to take root and unfold.

            He would go down to London early this year, Arthur decided, perhaps as soon as next month. He could see how young Tom was getting on in his theatrical adventures. That lad always had some interesting tale to tell. And who knew what else might turn up?

            As he continued to his bedchamber, the earl’s step was lighter.

            * * *

            “Now then, Yer Honor, have ye taken a wrong turning?” called a mocking voice.